A WHO food safety expert is hoping for “clear commitments” at the first International Conference on Food Safety, which begins today.

Angelika Tritscher, a World Health Organization (WHO) food safety expert in the department of food safety and zoonoses, spoke with Food Safety News ahead of the event, which is organized by WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the African Union.

“What we are hoping for is a commitment. We have ministers attending from around 25 countries, if half of them make clear commitments in public that they can be bound by then you can work with that to help countries or regions move the agenda forward at national level. Food safety is not something out there alone by itself it needs to be integrated in food production in general,” said Tritscher, who is attending the meeting.

The conference will bring together ministers of health and agriculture, scientific experts, partner agencies and representatives of consumers, food producers and distributors. At the conclusion, a political statement advocating for increased and better coordinated collaboration and support to improve food safety globally will be made.

Angelika Tritscher

A toxicologist and food scientist by training, Tritscher is responsible for a unit called risk assessment and management, which evaluates food related health risks and see how they can be managed.

As one of the co-organizers, WHO invited experts to speak at the conference today and tomorrow in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, aimed at decision makers and heads of food agencies to put food safety more in the center of discussions.

Speakers include Arie Havelaar, professor at the University of Florida; Howard-Yana Shapiro, chief agricultural officer at Mars Inc. USA; Steven Jaffee, lead agricultural economist at World Bank Group; Mark Booth, CEO of Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ); and Barbara Gallani from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Tritscher said there is good awareness on nutrition, food security, and sustainable food production but the important element of food safety within it all is never highlighted enough.

“Food safety falls under the responsibility of the agriculture ministry in some countries, in others it is under health, others have standalone agencies. For big diseases it is very clear it is all under the umbrella and responsibility of the ministry of health but for food safety it is not clear,” she said.

“The participants we have at the meeting are minister or vice-minister level from health or agriculture ministries from several countries but we also have a panel where you have heads of food agencies. What is really important is the health aspects and what the burden of foodborne disease means in health and economic costs and impact on development.”

A recent report from the Global Food Safety Partnership highlighted the need for more targeted investment to promote food safety at a domestic level across Africa instead of projects focusing on overseas markets.

The WHO African Region had the highest burden of foodborne diseases per population, according to estimates released in 2015. More than 91 million people are believed to fall ill and 137,000 die each year.

Each year as many as 600 million fall ill worldwide after eating contaminated food. Of these, 420,000 people die, including 125,000 children under the age of five.

Tritscher said the continent was not chosen to host the event due to this burden but there were good reasons to have an international food safety conference in Africa.

“There is a high disease burden and there is a lot of momentum now where people understand. From a WHO perspective, when we work with countries, nutrition and food safety is linked very often. In nutrition programs we can raise awareness about the importance of food safety, food hygiene, safe preparation of food and so forth,” she said.

“The 2015 figures are conservative estimates and are likely underestimates but it still shows the tremendous impact due to unsafe food. What is new now is the report of the World Bank which has built on the disease burden figures and tried to estimate what that actually means in dollar figures with a focus on low and middle income countries. It shows the amount of productivity lost due to unsafe food and ill people is $95 billion plus $15 billion on health costs annually and this illustrates what the impact on development is in countries with unsafe food.”

The World Bank report last year turned WHO data into economic terms to focus government attention on the need for greater investment, better regulatory frameworks, and measures that promote behavior change.

Tritscher said politicians and consumer organizations have roles to play in awareness building.

“Bringing food hygiene and safety education into schools is a political decision but the willingness to make such a decision needs to come first and people need to understand the magnitude of the problem. Once you come with a dollar figure people wake up and say this is actually something that costs us too much money so we have to do something,” she said.

“We have tools like the Five Keys to Safer Food – those are simple things that need to be taken up, there needs to be a willingness at the political level to integrate something like this in the school curriculum and to have a good follow-up. If you learn from the consequences it allows you to react much quicker.”

Last year the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution making a World Food Safety Day, which will be every June 7 with the first one this year.

Tritscher said it was a very important step in awareness raising but only the first step.

“You need to have the message, tools and ideas behind what people can do. You need to raise awareness but you need to have solutions that you can offer if countries are willing to take this up. It is a global event to put the topic on the radar,” she said.

“That is the key first step and then once countries are willing and realize it is important and they need to do something, WHO and FAO need to stand ready to help them improve their system. To analyze existing infrastructure and food safety systems and see where weak spots are or where the biggest improvements can be made to have an overall impact.

“We also need to link it in to existing initiatives such as the U.N. Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) which mentions food safety, maybe not enough or we are not highlighting it enough, but it is very important to make links to things that are already on the radar and moving. If we come every day with another problem to politicians how are they going to prioritize and deal with things?

“The long term perspective is where the challenge comes in as politicians have a four or five year life cycle so that is why it is important to link into the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, we are talking long term, you cannot have quick wins only.”

The conference in Ethiopia is being held ahead of the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade, organized by FAO, WHO and the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva on April 23-24.

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Joe Whitworth is a food and beverage trade journalist. Prior to reporting for Food Safety News, he worked for William Reed Business Media since 2012 as Editor of Food Quality News before becoming food safety editor for Food Navigator. Whitworth has moderated sessions at Food Ingredients Europe in 2015 and The Ingredients Show in 2018. Before joining William Reed, he worked on newspapers run by Fairfax Media in Australia. Whitworth graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).